A Plague of Tongues
Many years later, when the wise men gathered with their pierced faces and carved gourds to purify the streets of Floralinda, they agreed they should have known a run of plagues would curse this town. There had been signs, they muttered, sprinkling the hard earth with river water. There was the coughing dog. The blue-skinned boy.
The little white terrier, Basadre, a normally mild, unexcitable creature, had spun through Don Victor Sobrevilla’s house whining and frenzied, chasing his tail in perfect circles. There was a madness to his movements—out of control, yet full of grace—a four-legged tango marked by perfect concatenations of the figure eight.
The children laughed, following the dog through the corridors of the mansion, humming, spinning, somersaulting behind him, crashing against furniture until the air clattered with the sounds of the family silver. It began on the top floor of the house, when Basadre came to the doorway of the schoolroom, issued one last bark—a high, strident little cry—then twirled down the stairs to the second floor with its narrow passageways, cavernous bedrooms, and faded mirrors. The five children, age four to ten, sprang from their chairs, so delighted by the sight of the dancing dog that their teacher, Señorita Marcela, didn’t have the heart to stop them. They followed the animal, shrieking and bumping along walls so that lizards leapt out and scurried under the carpets in terror. By the time they reached the ground floor, they had chased the little dog over the black-and-white tiles of the foyer, in and out of the portrait-hung sala, around the vast mahogany table in the dining room, and stampeded toward the sacred sanctuary of their Aunt Belén’s library. The din from Don Victor’s grandchildren was so resounding that Boruba, the chief ama of the house, leaned out from the kitchen and with one earsplitting bellow—“Cállense!”—dispersed them and sent the ill-fated creature staggering out into the patio, where he sank to the floor and began the terrible business of his coughing. It was a cough such as no one in the Sobrevilla house had ever heard before—dead-dry and brittle, like the rat-tat-tat of a dull hatchet against the trunk of a caoba tree. Basadre coughed and coughed, his white hair matted with sweat, his eyes flat as two desert stones.
Don Victor emerged from his workshop, waving his arms and shouting that he couldn’t work with all the racket. “Que barbaridad!” he cried. “Here I am putting the last touch of solder on the machine that will bring this misery of a lizard town to glory, and I have to listen to the endless hacking of a demon mutt?” He held a goosenecked pincer in one hand, a ball of wire in the other, and it was clear that he had been in his workshop far too long, for he had that frazzled look—thin hair sprouting skyward, cravat all askew.
Doña Mariana swept downstairs when she heard her husband shouting on the patio. “I’m coming, querido! Coming!” Her long silvery hair streamed along her shoulders, as it always did during the hour of the siesta, and her dress was unhooked from underarm to hip. Struggling to tuck her ample bosom into place, she secured one or two hooks and called to Pedro the gardener to move the poor animal out of the sun and into a cool place under the potted cherimoya tree. Pedro had grown to love Basadre and wanted to make him more comfortable, but try as he might, he couldn’t lift the poor animal; it was as if Basadre had attached himself to the floor, sent roots into the tilework.
They all came after that: four generations of family members, one by one, registering their concern with varying degrees of dismay. The villagers, in clusters of two and three, came winding up the long path and peered over the brick barricade that had been erected to keep dangerous reptiles from slithering in when the mighty Ucayali overflowed its banks. A barricade without a dog was pointless, and the people of Floralinda knew it. Dogs were invaluable in the jungle. Don Victor had purchased the terrier on a visit to Pucallpa twelve years before and named him after Jorge Basadre, Peru’s minister of roads, who had built the highway from Lima to Pucallpa. Just as Basadre, the man, had felt the call to open the Amazon to the world, Basadre, the dog, felt the call to keep it from spilling into his master’s house. He could sense a poisonous reptile before a human could, unearth nests of destructive soldier ants, smell wildmen as they moved swiftly along the rim of trees, waiting to raid the cornfields. The villagers filed past the sick animal, clucking their tongues. Basadre was small, but he had been fierce.
Graciela was the first of Don Victor’s children to come out to the patio, lavishing the creature with all the attention she would have given her own son or daughter. She had pleaded with Boruba to bring the honey pot from the kitchen, crush the manzanilla flowers, fashion a little nozzle out of a thick rubber leaf, from which she might drip tea onto the tongue of the heaving dog.
Graciela had grown into a magnificent woman, thirty-four years old, with grainy, dark circles that ringed her eyes and gave her a melancholy air that made young men sigh. La Bella Morada, the men at Chincho’s bar called her—beautiful purple one—and then they’d hitch their trousers at the thought. She had been a lively child, and those embers still brightened her eyes, her walk, her rare moments of vivacity. There was no one in all of Floralinda who could sing and dance like Graciela. She had lived up to the promise of being a graceful child. When she donned the gold flamenco shoes her Tío Alejandro had sent from Trujillo, and when she stamped her long, thin feet the way she had been taught by the old gypsy Maruca, she could bring the whole Sobrevilla household streaming down the caoba stair, eager to see her move.
Graciela lived in the mansion with only her two small children, Pablo and Silvia. La Bella’s husband had disappeared suddenly, angrily, five years before, vanishing into the Alto Amazonas like a cobra out of the hot sun. For a while, Nestor Sotomarino had been sighted nearby, in the company of renegade sailors. Some said he had become a rebel guerrillero; others said he was getting rich on coca leaf; but the last he had been seen was by the men down at Chincho’s bar, marching off alone with no more than a week’s supply of food on his back.
Graciela was the delicately wired antenna of the Sobrevillas. It was she who tasted the sweetness of things to come, felt the ill winds, saw ghosts in the night air. It was she who, on the second day of Basadre’s ordeal, tenderly held his dry snout in her hands and realized the cough was no ordinary affliction. It was too otherworldly. Her father had been right to use the word demon. There was some witchery at work.
Her older sister, Belén, too, knew that the dog’s malady signaled something amiss. Being a person ruled by the head, Belén listened carefully and concluded that it was more complicated than a pulmonary spasm. She put down the book she was reading and began to scour her library shelves for something that would explain the phenomenon. She stood on her toes, stretched a long neck toward her wall of books, and wrinkled her freckled nose. But she couldn’t find it. She remembered, however, in lightning concordance between learning and tenderness, a scene from Alexandre Dumas’s La Dame aux Camellias, in which the heroine’s cough is soothed by poetry. Snatching a volume of sonnets by Dante, Belén strode resolutely to the patio, knelt before the animal, and began reading aloud.
“I greet you in Love’s name, hoping you will escape that pain so great even the farthest stars flinch, that even the sky drains itself of planet, moon, cloud, as if the end of the world marched on us, as if what I’m about to say were the words that set ablaze each soul, each fear, like a field of dried-out grain!”
The dog gasped and held his breath, leading her to conclude what she’d always suspected, that words could fix everything—she had only to read to the end of the volume to cure their beloved Basadre. But by the third line of the stanza, he was hacking again, with a frenzy that brought tears to her eyes.
If her sister, Graciela, had inherited her mother’s heart with something more—a healthy regard for the supernatural—Belén had inherited her father’s head with something less—a staunch rejection of jungle sorcery. No matter how often Don Victor told Belén about the witchman, the stone, and her triumphant entry into the world, she refused to think of it as anything but a coincidence. Had she borne children of her own she might have allowed that reproduction was in itself miraculous and that there was scant difference between the roles that a prayer or a stone might play in it. But at the age of thirty-six, she was childless and logical. She regarded rain forest cures as primitive, unenlightened. She disapproved heartily of her father’s visits to his feathered shamans. She kept journals, sewn from her father’s paper, in which she wrote lists upon lists of random information: the botanical name of each new plant she encountered; amusing aphorisms; foreign words gleaned from books, and their definitions; the title of every novel she had read and its most memorable character.
Her library was a model of organization, every volume in place according to subject and nationality of the author. Her father had built the room twenty years before, when she was only sixteen, worried that his bookish daughter would be lured by his old aunt’s standing invitation to come live in Trujillo. He oversaw its construction with infinite care, ordering shelves cut from dense mahogany, seeing that the urucú was applied evenly and burnished to a deep red glow. At first, there hadn’t been much to shelve, but Don Victor made sure every bagmaker in Pucallpa and every printer in Iquitos knew that he expected books as part of the payment. “Literature!” he’d shout from the dock, as their barges drifted off into black water. “You bring it, you hear me? Bring me Cervantes! Ricardo Palma! El Inca Garcilaso de la Vega! Don’t bring me dogshit. I’ll charge you more if you do!”
First came the printed matter no one wanted to read—census reports from the military, discarded lesson books, socialist pamphlets about working conditions in Arequipa. But eventually, the collection grew to a laudable diversity: manuals on the navigable waters of the Amazon, dictionaries translating Spanish into a dozen languages, Turgenev’s letters, Blake’s poetry reinterpreted by Neruda, José Martí’s recollections of Manhattan, all of Chekhov’s plays. Within twenty years, the room housed thousands of volumes. Belén had read them all—some, a number of times—and although she had not chosen to avail herself of the Trujillo invitation, her great-aunt, Tía Esther, had been her library’s most beneficent donor, sending books through Tío Alejandro’s regular shipments from the coast. And so it was that Tía Esther, from so far away, began to furnish Belén’s imagination. If it wasn’t with weekly letters written in a bold hand, relaying the news of the day in her bustling city, it was in books, bought at estate auctions by the cartons, inscribed with tender dedications to her grandniece.
There was no question: Books were Belén’s faith, her foil against the wilderness. She loved drawing each one from its shelf, handling its spine, dusting away the mites that had been brought to her library from God knew where. She loved that split-second transcendence when reading would carry her off to a realm in which truth reigned, mysteries were explained, and paths unfurled before her—shining and absolute. Reading had made her serious and learned. No, she could not believe a witchman and his stones could make a difference between life and death. Looking down now at Basadre in his misery, Belén wished she could have faith in myths and magic. Hard evidence told her the dog would die.
Elsa, Jaime’s wife and the mother of his three children, was next to visit the ailing animal. In mid-morning, after Jaime had departed on one of his weekly trips upriver, she came down, an ivory mantilla hugging her shoulders and a scowl twisting her face. She stood in the frame of the house’s carved portals, a good distance from the hacking dog, and yelled, “Stop it, you flea-ridden beast! You’re driving me crazy!” But crazy she already was, and the whole household knew it.
Elsa was a parched bird of a woman, as arid as the dunes of Chan Chan. She had come to live with them after her marriage to Jaime in Trujillo, where he had been sent to attend school. She arrived in Floralinda with a pedigree that proved totally useless in the jungle. Elsa was a Márquez y Márquez, the daughter of the powerful sugar baron whose vast cane fields rimmed the Pacific, between Trujillo and Chiclayo. The Márquezes had built palaces along Peru’s rugged shoreline, dug an empire into the desert, filled their shelves with treasures from ancient graves. To meet the growing appetite for sugar in America, the family had sent their agents into the highlands to lend money to the poor freely, but months later they would return to collect what was owed them: in trucks, with whips and shackles, forcing debtors into the cane fields. Elsa had been raised wanting nothing. She wore clothes her father had imported from Paris. She boasted about her education from a French tutor who had been brought all the way from St. Cyr. She was imperious, frigid, self-absorbed. No one in Floralinda could imagine why Jaime had fallen in love with her.
She hadn’t always been that way. When Jaime had first met her, she was a clever young woman with a pretty face, a lovely figure, and a socialite’s taste for frivolity. The face and figure didn’t change. But Elsa’s condition had erupted shortly after her arrival in the jungle: a psychosis so acute that Jaime awoke one night to find her shaking uncontrollably. Having been raised along the Ucayali, he assumed she was experiencing an attack of Taki Onqoy, an invasion of microscopic worms that travel the bloodstream, lodge in the brain, and cause convulsions. It was a curse—well known—that jungle Indians inflicted on trespassers. Jaime did what his father would have done: He immediately sent word to a shaman. But as soon as the curandero appeared at the door with bones piercing his nose and a gourd of animal blood in his hands, Elsa jumped on her bed, yipped like a river seal, and refused to allow him to come in.
After the tremors subsided, she began to produce gruesome canvases that featured green men with shriveled teats, lurking in trees. Even as she painted them, she was overheard directing them to keep their distance. More than once, Doña Mariana marched into her room and pleaded with her to paint them over or, at the very least, turn them around so that they faced the wall. She didn’t want her grandchildren born with scales and bulging eyes, consequences she was sure would follow if Elsa pursued the theme. On these occasions, Doña Mariana would open her blouse and show Elsa the vestigial fingers that dangled from her underarm. “See this?” She shook her deformity in her daughter-in-law’s face and lied, “My mother dreamt of the devil when she carried me, and if you continue to paint those monstrosities, your babies will be born with wings and a tail!” She didn’t add that there was a more important reason she had been born with that curse. But this was years before a plague of truth descended on Floralinda.
Jaime tried to save Elsa as she slipped into her dark universe. He spoke to her gently, brought soothing teas to her at bedtime, even complimented her jungle scenes. He followed Don Victor’s advice when his father took him aside, handed him a glass of sherry, and said, “Son, a nervous woman is like a nervous cat. Give her a few children, an occasional dish of cream, and you’ll see her calm down. Mark my words.” But Elsa grew worse when Rosita was born. The girl was beautiful; when Jaime first held her, he thought he would burst with joy. But Elsa took every opportunity to hand the child off to the servants. She began sequestering herself in their bedroom, writing endless missives to her cousins, folding them neatly, taking them down to the river, where she would drop them into the water and watch them float briskly away. When Marco was born two years later with a coat of chestnut down covering his body, she was convinced she had given birth to a bat. “What is that tail!” she screamed, pointing at the baby’s penis. “Take this creature away before it grows wings!” Jaime was flustered, confused, but undaunted. He doted over his children, worried about the resentment he was beginning to harbor against his wife, but he put on a brave face and made a point to tell her how pretty she was; remembering his father’s words, he held her close in their bed. By the time Jorge, their youngest, was born, Elsa was a phantom of her former self, a full-fledged termagant. She berated her amas for raising her children like wild macaques. She screeched at her two sisters-in-law until they skulked out of the room. But the worst of it was this: She no longer spoke to her husband, no longer wanted his caresses.
The odd part was that in a social setting Elsa seemed perfectly normal. She chattered gaily with guests and was fashionably attired in dresses and gloves imported from Trujillo. When the couture was back in her closet, however, her conviviality was stashed with it, and the illness surfaced again: She heaped abuse on the servants, neglected her children, and demanded more attention than anyone else under that roof. Until, that is, Basadre began his infernal coughing. Standing at the portal and glaring out at the wretched animal, Elsa wondered how it had come to pass in that mud hole that a sick beast was ruling the house.
By the third day of Basadre’s misfortune, all Floralinda had heard the interminable coughing. They glanced up at the house on their way to the factory and tipped their straw hats in sympathy. On the fourth day, Jaime returned from his travels and heard word of the affliction from one of the workers on the dock. He ran up the path to the patio and put his arms around the helpless dog. “What’s wrong, old friend? Come on, now!” He had raised Basadre, taught him everything he knew, whispered to him every night about adventures they would have together the next morning. But no whispered comforts, no ruby promises could calm the rattle in the canine throat now.
On the fifth day, Graciela’s foreboding came to pass. Monkeys came swinging out of the jebe trees, timidly at first, peering about to see if there were some larger predator lurking around the dog. Then they descended in droves, lining the brick barricade like monks along a cathedral pew—chattering, hopping, rocking nervously from haunch to haunch as Basadre’s cough worsened, until Don Victor stuck his head out the workshop door to scream, “Will someone, for Jesus, José, and Santa María’s sake, please shoot that insane beast!” But, of course, being a lover of animals, Don Victor knew, and everyone in his house understood, that no one would dare do anything of the kind.
Just as the sun was beginning to fade, one of the monkeys began to mimick Basadre’s voice with such subtlety and genius—pac-hac-hac—that the entire ring of simians turned to look. There was a hoot or two, a clacking of teeth, and soon every beast in the circle was doing it: pac-hac-hac! pac-hac-hac! By the eighth day, it seemed the whole jungle, from the four-hundred-hectare clearing of Floralinda downriver to Santa Isabel, was pulsing with that noise. Crimson-feathered papagayos cackled, crickets chirped, and every tribesman from Witoto to Shipibo rattled his arrows, wondering what would follow.
Stranger things had happened in that jungle. Ants had chewed through whole villages in the course of an hour. Alligators had appropriated the workers’ shacks. The river had heaved up in one wave and left creatures wriggling in the trees. Snakes sped through the forest singing like birds. What was an epidemic of coughing in the grand scheme of things? Resigned to the din as only the residents of that wild and capricious place could resign themselves, the people of Floralinda plugged their ears with pima cotton, strips of tree latex, and wads of dried hemp wrapped in snippets of woven cloth. Don Victor, revered in the province of Ucayali as its most ingenious citizen, devised a marvelous apparatus: a brace of tin cups, stuffed with shreds of discarded paper from the floor of his factory, then clamped to his head by a stalk of bamboo that circled from one ear to another, fastened under his chin, and could be opened or closed with the quick flip of a metal flange.
In that surrounding cacophony, and with the attendant challenges of having to live on—to eat, sleep, make conversation and love—with strange devices strapped to their heads, few in the Sobrevilla household noticed when the boy came out to the patio, slid his back down the wall, and stayed there, staring at Basadre with eyes that glowed like embers.
At fifteen, the chief ama’s only daughter, Tomasina, had birthed the boy after a drunken coupling with a coca-leaf hauler. The man had shuffled through Floralinda on his way to the trading post with a basket on his back, a jug of chicha in hand, and an irresistible itch for a woman. After the baby was born and the poor, frightened girl could run without bleeding, she disappeared upriver with a Cashibo hunter, never to be seen again.
Six years old now, Miguelito was remarkably intelligent, quick to learn how to count and read, clever with his hands, agile as a cat. But he was an angry child—given to biting and scratching—filled with such venom that the women of Floralinda pushed their little ones behind them when they saw him coming. El feroz they called him—the savage one—and they would cross themselves when he passed.
He was wiry and sullen, the polar opposite of his grandmother Boruba, whose large person always bustled about the house happily, and whose culinary fare and tender mercies filled the Sobrevillas’ table and lives. Whereas she was a mix of Shipibo brown and Barbadian black, a crown of nappy hair framing a large, moon face, Miguelito was wan and yellow, with a small head, and hair cut tight against his scalp. But his eyes were his most striking feature: narrow and burning, with a remarkable ability to focus on one object at a time. That night, so intense was his focus on the miserable Basadre that when the monkeys sprang down to cough in his face, he did not register them at all.
Before long, he, too, started coughing—pac-hac-hac—filling the monkeys with such joy that they swarmed around him, tweaking his ears with their leathery fingers. It was a light cough, befitting the narrow parameters of his chest. But soon enough, it crescendoed so hideously that the rest of the forest was spurred into a thundering free-for-all. That roar—so overpowering that no earplug could mask it—caused all seventeen members of the Sobrevilla household to fly out of their rooms and onto the patio to confirm this new turn of events.
The Sobrevillas stood paralyzed, taking in the pandemonium: the spectacle of the crazed child, whose eyes seemed to glow with a strange light; the stillness of the dog against the frantic dance of monkeys. Don Victor had come out holding a beaker of fine Spanish sherry, and with his evening’s drink poised in one hand and his tin-cup device dangling from his neck, he felt a sharp stab of alarm.
Everything happened quickly after that: Boruba came running out of the kitchen. Graciela touched Basadre’s chest and felt the stillness of his heart. Miguelito stopped coughing and toppled over, lifeless. And then, like celluloid images spooling through a projector in reverse, the monkeys shot back into the trees, the birds into the night, the deafening roar ceased, and there was silence. When the Sobrevillas looked back at the boy, he was a bright azulene.
That night, Miguelito’s body was laid out on the threshing table, between the house and the cotton field, and three shamans and a jungle embalmer were called to observe the preternatural shade of his skin. He was bright as a fish—a taut, shimmery blue—not as if death had transfigured him, but as if nature had made him that way. When they opened him up, his heart was as black as a stone.
The dog, made light by death, was taken from the patio in a hammock. Pedro the gardener rolled him onto it tenderly and carried it out to where the casuarina bloomed by the roadside. There, in full view of the laborers hunched over their chicha at the rickety tables in Chincho’s bar, he lifted the furry corpse out of the osier, lowered it into a grave filled with tinder, then lit a fire and watched it burn. He remembered how the little dog had loved to scamper ahead of him through the hemp fields, clearing the paths of snakes.
Pedro sat as the gaslights went out one by one in the village. He sat as the drunken laborers made their way home to their shacks. When nothing was left of Basadre but a fine gray ash, it was almost dawn. Pedro’s impulse was to cast the remains onto the river to travel the intestines of fellow creatures into eternal life—but he did as the priest Bernardo had taught him. He made a quick sign of the cross with one hand and covered the cinders with dirt. When he was finished, he could see the first light of day breaking through trees across the river. Knowing that dawn would bring the burial of Miguelito, he set out to find Boruba.
She was with the body of her grandson. The boy lay serenely on the wooden slab, his throat sewn shut and tied with a coarse knot above the collar of his crisp white shirt, his face scrubbed so that the blue skin shone. Her head was bowed, as if all the blackbirds of death were perched upon it. The Sobrevilla women were filing past, one by one: Graciela, with a black mantilla pulled tight around her ears; Belén, her gray eyes glistening. Forgetting all the times the boy had sunk sharp teeth into their arms and legs, they reached out to stroke the flat little forehead. When she saw Boruba’s face covered with tears, Graciela threw her arms around her and wept.
Pedro kicked off his sandals. Being the son of a curandero and wise about funeral rituals, he could not stand before the dead without feeling the earth beneath his feet. Had he been among his people, he would have expected to find the boy’s bones burned down to a fine powder, stirred into a tart white mash of fermented tubers, and passed around in a gourd for all the tribe to drink. Boruba, too, a Shipibo and member of the greater nation of Nahua, might have drunk her grandson’s ashes so that he could glide from her head to her chest, where he could stay forever cradled in her heart. But there they were, in a white man’s hacienda, and so much had changed along the Ucayali. Pedro approached Boruba, touched the back of her head lightly, then squatted alongside to help his friend keep her sad vigil. It would take time for the boy’s spirit to lift from his navel and ride its way to the stars.
As the jungle emerged from the mist and the sun threw a pearly haze over Floralinda, the townspeople came to pay their respects, Don Victor and Doña Mariana among them. Don Victor strode directly to the bier without hesitation, but Doña Mariana hung back, catching her breath and absorbing the sad scene before her. Don Victor looked down with a face that was haggard and worn. He brought his cupped hands over the child’s corpse, and then dropped . . . what? Something filmy—the slenderest wisp of stuff. It looked like fabric but seemed to be lighter than air. As the paper wafted down and lit on the boy’s white shirt, it opened, caught the dawn, and shimmered, capturing the glow of the sun, the blue of the dead, the rose of Graciela’s lips, the gray in Belén’s gaze, the green of new hemp, the ocher of skin. It was a transitory thing—a flash of light, snatched and spun into a fleeting kaleidoscope. When Don Victor took the boy’s hand and opened his fingers one by one, the mourners did not imagine that one day they would be asked to remember precisely what followed next. They would have no trouble recalling it. The shapechanger—they would say in their testimonies—opened Miguelito’s hand; I saw it myself. He took the gleaming thing from his little belly, held it high above the table so that it winked with a hundred eyes, then brought it down, pressed it into the boy’s palm, and closed his fingers into a fist. There was little more to mark that transforming dawn, except a rush of wind—as if something had cleared an aperture and flown into the humid morning. Then, clear as the horn at the Annunciation, the cock began to crow. The ripple of color, the luminous paper, the sharp wind rising, and then, cu-cu-ru-cu-cu! Everyone would remember it that way.
Even Father Bernardo, trudging along the path toward the crop fields, his sandals flapping against his heels, would say that when he looked toward the boy’s makeshift mortuary, he saw an uncommon radiance.
In truth, the floor of Don Victor’s workshop was littered with that paper. He had been laboring over it for months, grinding pastes with a mortar and pestle, cooking them carefully in German beakers, stretching moist layers over a delicate netting to dry with the aid of a whirring fan. Whereas the factory he had built in Floralinda spun stiff brown paper out of the hemp that grew copiously in his fields, this new discovery was fragile, pellucid, mysterious: a tissue as beguiling as glass.
He had chanced upon the idea for it on the pages of a lapsed engineering journal, Novedades de ingeniería. Every month, when the barge pulled in from Pucallpa, a jumble of the necessary and the ridiculous—from tinned butter to used corsets, from machine parts to moldy magazines—would arrive from Don Victor’s ancestral house in Trujillo, now presided over by his younger brother, Don Alejandro. Established, wealthy, with a mansion on the main square of the most aristocratic of Peruvian cities, Don Alejandro would never have guessed as a boy that someday his older brother would leave everything behind to pursue a paper fortune in the jungle. How could Victor have forfeited the comforts of the coast—cavernous salons with portraits that confirmed a pedigree, white-gloved butlers wielding the family silver, crystal flutes brimming with vintage pisco? Alejandro was no prodigal and would never have given up one ounce of the luxury about him, but out of an acute sense of family responsibility and the Catholic notion that a man is ultimately responsible for a brother who wanders from good fortune to bad, every three months Alejandro would box up his household refuse—outmoded shoes, broken toys, old radios, half-used canisters of propane—and have one of his minions truck the entire collection to Lima and up the new road to Pucallpa, where it would be loaded onto barges and shipped downriver.
Months later, the boxes of Trujillo rubbish would be cast onto the muddy banks of the Ucayali, and the jungle Sobrevillas’ window on the world would flick open, onto the modern day.
It was in that way that Graciela’s two children, Pablito and Silvia, learned about Papa Noel, from a broken doll with aquamarine eyes, carnelian cheeks, and a bell around his neck. It was in that way that Doña Mariana acquired her deceased mother-in-law’s Italian leather boots—the first article of clothing she slipped into in the morning and the last she removed at night. And it was in that way Don Victor discovered that if you added acetic acid to a mash of fiber and sulfites, if you forced it quickly and evenly through a long line of tiny nozzles, if you allowed it to land gently on a net and dry, the result was cellophane.
Don Victor had pored over his brother’s discarded journals, sketching out ideas on leftover graph paper, measuring chemicals from beaker to beaker in the solitude of his workshop, emerging only when a factory worker came running to report that a machine part had gone flying or that a monkey had fallen into the thresher or that a Mayoruna passing through had consumed too much chicha and reeled into the acid vat. The making of cellophane obsessed him, seeped into every recess of his imagination. Not since he had set foot on the riverbank and christened the land Floralinda had he sensed that he was on the verge of something significant, that he was—as the witchman who birthed his daughters had told him—being summoned into the universe. Beware of wanting too much, the witcFrom the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Cellophane by Marie Arana. Copyright © 2006 by Marie Arana. Excerpted by permission of The Dial Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.